About Payton Swick

Vegan. Digital craftsman. Tea explorer. Avid learner of things. Writes code @automattic.

Tai Chi Door Opening

Ok, now you think I’m joking. Actually, how you open doors is a really good indicator of the integration level of your Tai Chi practice. Doors generally have some weight to them, so pushing or pulling them out of the way requires a short but intense movement of your body. If you’ve ever tried to open a door while your arms were full of groceries, you might remember the amount of extra effort it took for such a simple task.

Let’s begin by examining doors that you push. No, not the ones that say “PULL” that you push on anyway (this happens way more often than I’d like to admit), but the doors that open outward away from your direction of movement. This is important: you are moving in the direction of the door, so this is the easier direction, right? On the other hand, the door isn’t actually moving directly away from your body, it’s pivoting to one side. If you’ve played any Tai Chi Push Hands before, this motion may be familiar to you. It means that you have to “stick” to the door as it moves out, adapting your body and arm to keep things balanced. If you over-extend to get the door out of the way, you’ll be forced to use the muscles of the arm to carry all the extra weight of the door opening, especially if there’s an auto-closer attached that you’re fighting against. This can cause a strain and maybe even injury. But we already came up with the solution to that! Much easier would be to allow the motion of your body moving forward to help keep your arm at a comfortable reach. Let your legs push the door.

This is all alignment. If you’ve studied Tai Chi, you’ve probably come across the idea of alignment before. The full principle is too complex to approach here, but maybe you know something about it already. By removing the slack in our joints, we connect our upper body and our lower body, attaching our arms to our legs and our hands to the floor underneath our feet. If this is successful, by walking forward we can push into the ground to create the force needed to open the door without using the arm strength at all.

Good, so that’s doors that open out, what about those that open inward? A principle I’ve discussed before is that anything you touch or grab hold of becomes, in some sense, part of your own body. As you grab the door handle, really allow yourself to feel the weight of the door. Don’t treat it as something annoying that you need to yank out of the way; this gives your arm (and probably your shoulders and your back) quite a sharp jerk. If you yank the door, you yank your body as well. If you don’t believe me, try pulling quickly on a heavy door and feel how your arm and torso tense up in response. Quick, sharp movements like this are dangerous for your muscles and joints. A smooth, controlled pull is much safer.

There’s even better news, though! Why not take all that work away from your arms and torso and let your hips and legs do the pulling? Try this: after you’ve grabbed the door, keep your arm at a comfortable distance from your body and step backward. You’ll notice that as you step back, your torso and your arm naturally move back as well, and if the door is part of your body, it will too. You may need to turn near the end of this pull, in which case let the hips do the turning as well! Your legs and hips are generally much stronger than your arms and chest, so why not let them do the hard stuff?

Door opening is an excellent Tai Chi exercise and one I recommend for nearly everyone who wants to get out and back in again. It’s like having a push hands partner just waiting for you at every door.

Monday Class Cancelled

Many apologies, but I must cancel our Monday evening class this week at the Chace Mill (February 20th).

I am (quite surprisingly) stuck in Richmond, Virginia, due to a large snowstorm shutting down the airport here. I will be returning tomorrow but I fear I will be too late for our class.

That said, we will extend the class one week to make up for the lost time. I understand that there’s no snow up in Vermont, but I hope you are all warm and comfortable nonetheless. I will let everyone know the details of the make-up class next week. Please feel free to email me with any questions you might have.


Tai Chi Fundamentals Begins February 7th

On Tuesday, February 7th, I will begin my final Fundamentals course of the Winter. This will be at 7:30-8:30pm on Tuesday evenings at the North End Studios (see my class page for more information).

In April I will be traveling to China and hopefully will be able to bring back some interesting Qi knowledge to share in the summer. I will post about more classes at that time.

If you’d like to try out the Tai Chi material, now is a great time to do it. The depths of the slow, crawling Winter are past and the days are lengthening. The energy of the sun is becoming stronger and our own energies are beginning to stir, even though true Spring is still far off.

If you’d like to try a class without committing to the whole course, you are welcome to show up on either the first or second week. I’m also happy to work with your schedule to provide private instruction if desired.

May snow and sun nourish your days.

Tai Chi and the Dishes

How do you wash the dishes? This is one of those things that, I think, everyone has to do (at least once you stop putting it off). But how exactly do you wash plates, cups, and spoons? It’s no simple task to judge the weight and shape of every piece in a pile of objects, choose one, then hold it in one hand while using the other to clean its contours. At the same time, you visually assess the object for debris, add soap and water as needed, and then stack it someplace for drying.

Of course we don’t think about any of those things. We just wash the dishes and try to be done with it so we can go back to playing our Tai Chi forms (heh).

What I see here is a perfect microcosm of the fundamental principle of Yi or intent in life. We are not usually present with our individual actions when we go to wash the dishes. We are not conscious of what we’re doing. But as Thich Nhat Hanh cautions,

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” … If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

When you practice Tai Chi long enough, you can perform postures and transitions without thought, but this is not Tai Chi, nor is it really “alive”. The idea of using “intent” is to fully be present with each movement of the body (or hey, the mind!) while playing your Tai Chi form or while working on any task.

As I pick up a bowl, I feel its weight in my hand, supporting it (Peng) while I move in my other hand to begin cleaning. If I find my attention wandering to other events, I gently bring it back to the bowl, telling myself, “I am washing this bowl right now; the other thing can wait.”  Often I will get impatient with the endless sea of bowls and try to speed up my washing, a tactic I’m well aware has broken many bowls! When the bowl is clean, I need to get it to the rack, so I shift my weight smoothly to one foot and rotate my body using my hips so I can comfortably place the bowl in its place. If instead I were to stretch my arm to the side and twist my torso, I may find that my lower back is sore later (for some weird reason). Tai Chi alignments aren’t just for the form.

In Tai Chi we never stretch when we could comfortably reach and if we cannot comfortably reach we move our core (or your lower dantien) to make the distance easier. With a little practice, the art of lift, wash, turn and set down, lift, wash, turn and set down can become a rhythmic qigong set in itself (I believe Tai Chi is just applied qigong anyway). It’s at the least more interesting than just creating clean dishes. Keep the focus turned inward on your body and its motion and your “chore” can even be relaxing.

Now what about the breath? I’ll leave that as an exercise for you. When my mind is present with the actions, my breath is smooth and even. If I am moving in straight, jerky lines, my breath is also jerky and tense. As you put your hands in the water, take a moment and feel your breathing. What does it feel like for you? Practice letting your breathing become soft and gentle before picking up the next plate.

If you clean out the sink before you know what happened, you may have made some progress in your Tai Chi.

  1. Nhat Hanh, Thich (1975,1976). Miracle of Mindfulness, A Manual on Meditation. Boston: Beacon Press books. ISBN 0-8070-1232-7

New Session Next Week

A new Tai Chi class will be starting next week! I think Tai Chi in 2012 is going to be even better than 2011, but I’ll let you be the judge of that. Come find out!

A new session begins January 10th at the North End Studio in Burlington or January 9th at the Chace Mill.

Both the Chace Mill class and the North End Studios class are the same material, so I invite people to choose which class fits their location and schedule the best. The Chace Mill class is at 6:45pm on Monday evenings and the North End Studios class is at 7:30pm on Tuesday evenings.

In the classes we’ll learn the Eight Foundation postures of Wu style Tai Chi and a great many principles that underlie both Tai Chi and Qigong. I like to put a lot of emphasis on how Tai Chi can be useful in daily life and focus less on choreography.

No experience or special clothes required. If you’d like any more details, just let me know or check out my classes page.

New class at the Chace Mill

Starting on January 9th, I’ll now be offering a second Beginners class at the Chace Mill building in addition to my class at the North End Studios.

Two classes? Which one do you take? Well, just like in Tai Chi itself, find the path that’s most comfortable for you. The class at the North End Studios is near downtown Burlington and is on Tuesday evenings from 7:30pm-9pm. The Chace Mill class is closer to Winooski and is on Monday evenings from 6:45pm-8pm. Perhaps one of these times or locations is better suited to you.

For more details about the classes, see my classes page and please sign up by sending me an email or giving me a call.